Shelley Ross remembered when her mother, folk singer Rosalie Sorrels, once said what she thought constituted folk music. It boiled down to one thing.
“Folks,” Ross said. “You’ve got to have folks listening to folk music, and you’ve got to have folks singing folk music.”
For more than 50 years, Sorrels has handled the latter half of that equation, playing to audiences across the country and recording more than 20 albums. On Saturday, Dec. 14, a sold-out crowd at the Riverside Hotel’s Sapphire Room handled the former half. People laughed, sang along gently and applauded loudly as Sorrels and her friends—author Gino Sky and musicians John Pisano, aka Johnny Shoes, and Duncan Phillips—cracked jokes, told stories and sang songs. It was a fitting reception for a performer whom NPR called “an icon of American folk music.”
In an interview earlier this month, Ross talked about how Sorrels put together her 1991 book Way Out in Idaho, which famed music archivist Alan Lomax praised as setting “a new standard for a book on regional song.”
“One of the things that she said is [that] the music and the recipes, the poems and the stories, the politics—they all kind of go together, and that’s how she would want to tell the story,” Ross said. “That’s why that book was put together in that way; it’s because all of those things are intertwined.”
The concert at The Sapphire Room seemed to unfold with that thought in mind. The show opened with a set by Duncan Phillips, the son of folk singer and close Sorrels friend Utah Phillips. Phillips said that a musician had once told him, “Well, Duncan, you don’t sing very well, you don’t play very well, but you’re likable.” A blunt judgment, but it held some truth: The Salt Lake City, Utah-based musician’s self-deprecating humor and engrossing stories helped his simple guitar-picking and his rough, friendly baritone get over. The fact that Phillips was playing his father’s guitar added to the set’s resonance. SLC-based musician Guy Benson also played a couple of winsome folk tunes during this set.
Sorrels played two sets next with Sky and Pisano (Phillips joined them for the second). Her voice sounded weathered—most 80-year-olds’ voices will—but retained plenty of its astonishing warmth and clarity. Pisano provided elegant guitar accompaniment throughout and crooned a couple of smart original songs (an anti-consumerist Christmas number got especially strong applause). Sky regaled the crowd with jokes, poems and a short story involving his mother’s fruitcake recipe.
One poem ended with the line, “There’ll always be poets out there singing with Rosalie.” It could’ve made a good epigram for the evening.